Cold Chisel are a supporting act in Jimmy Barnes: Working Class Boy. While the film covers the legendary Scots-Australian singer’s life pre- and post-Chisel and includes interviews with bandmates Ian Moss and Don Walker, Barnsie’s tenure with the notoriously hard-living rock outfit is more or less glossed over. What’s surprising is that’s a good thing – the film has more important things to talk about.
Drawing on Barnes’ autobiography and stage show of the same name – filmed segments of the latter feature heavily – Working Class Boy follows a reflective Barnes as he traces his life from his early years in tough, booze-addled working class Glasgow, to his youth in tough, booze-addled, working class Elizabeth, South Australia, to his early forays into music in tough, booze-addled working class bands, and on to his position as elder statesman of pub rock today.
Along the way, Barnes and director Mark Joffe rip the top off the myth of the hard-boozing Aussie rocker to show the pain and trauma underneath. Raised in poverty and a culture of alcohol and violence, young James Swan (he later took the surname Barnes from his mother’s second husband) was both a product of his environment and desperate to get away from it. Again and again the film returns to the theme of escape, getting away, running to the horizon – one of the most moving passages involves Barnes reflecting on his solo childhood trips to the beach, where he would stare at the horizon until dark, dreaming of getting even further away from his life.
But we can’t ever really escape our past, not in any meaningful way – we can only make peace with it, and at its core Working Class Boy is an act of reconciliation as we follow Barnes’ ongoing attempts to take stock of the arc of his life and arrive at some kind of thesis.
It’s an intimate journey. Ironically, Barnes’ skills as a performer and raconteur sometimes work against this; he’s so busy being entertaining that a certain artifice unavoidably creeps in, most notably in the filmed stage sequences. Counter to that are scenes where he is more candidly captured in the environs of his childhood, reflecting on what happened to him. What rings true here is the flat, unadorned language and tone he employs to talk about genuinely stunning and occasionally horrifying acts of violence and dysfunction; when all the bells and whistles are stripped away and the unvarnished truth remains, that’s when the film soars.
Working Class Boy is ultimately an uplifting experience, and why wouldn’t it be? Right now Barnes, firmly entrenched in the pantheon of Australian rock and surrounded by a loving extended family – David Campbell (son, and there’s a story…), Swanee (brother), Mahalia (daughter), Jane (wife), and Mark “Diesel” Lizotte (brother in law) all make appearances – seems at peace now, with the man himself admitting somewhat sheepishly that he likes who he has become. And while efforts like this cannot help but come with at least the tiniest soupçon of revisionism, that peace seemed genuine and hard earned.
Sheilas‘ premise is simple: tell four unjustly obscure stories of great women from Australian history.
Sheilas‘ execution is brilliant: coming off the success of Growing Up Gracefully, sibling creators Hannah and Eliza Reilly undertake four quick, comedic commando raids into the past, banging out the stories of WWII commando Nancy Wake (Cecelia Morrow), Olympic swimming legend Fanny Durack (Nikki Britton), pub-occupying feminist Merle Thornton (Brenna Harding), and bushranging Indigenous single mum May Ann Bugg (Megan Lilly Wilding, a comedy shotgun of prodigious talent) in ribald, risque, take-no-prisoners style.
It’s simply great stuff, easily surpassing its three-way remit of a) celebrating some amazing women, b) dropping a little history on the audience, and c) being brutally, laugh-out-loud funny the whole time. The jokes come at a machine-gun clip, and whether the scripted gags are funnier than the on-the-record historical events and quotes (Nancy Wake was wild, guys!) is in the eye of the beholder. The show makes a merit of its budgetary constraints in true self-deprecating Australian style, with dodgy props (see: Captain Thunderbolt’s horse) and deadpan line deliveries, along with a finely tuned sense of the absurd, carrying the day.
It is, in the shell of a nut, a nigh-perfect dose of Aussie comedy. We need a second season yesterday.
Inveterate gambler Jim (Pawno‘s Damian Hill) has a serious problem: he needs to pay off his loan shark (Tony Nikolakopoulos) by the end of the day. The odds of that being accomplished are pretty remote. Jim’s working as a courier, struggling to make ends meet, and is saddled with looking after his young son, Alex (Ty Perham, Hill’s real life stepson) for the day. Of course, the real stakes in West of Sunshine aren’t whether or not Jim can scare up the cash he needs, but whether he can maintain any kind of meaningful connection with the kid since the breakdown of his relationship with the boy’s mother.
It’s easy to imagine a dumber, meaner, and less successful version of West of Sunshine, one that highlights the seedy underworld elements of the story in service to cheap melodrama and to the detriment of real thematic heft. Luckily, first time feature director Jason Raftopolous is drawing on a deeper and more interesting vein of cinematic inspiration than Quentin Tarantino or even Andrew Dominik, whose 2000 crime chronicle Chopper was set in a comparable Melbourne milieu. Rather, in expanding and repurposing his 2011 short Father’s Day, Raftopolous has looked to the Italian neorealists for stylistic grist, and you could make a case for the works of American indie auteur John Cassavetes as well.
In concrete terms, that means West of Sunshine takes place in real, working Melbourne locations and is populated with real, working, Melbourne people – Raftopoulos fills his ensemble with non-actors and lenses in real, open businesses in order to get the grainy, textured tone he’s after. You feel the length of Jim’s day and the weight of his burden the way you feel your eyeballs grit up after you’ve pushed it too hard for too long, and you can smell the cigarette smoke clouding outside the street corner pubs and the diesel fumes from idling trucks. The film is grounded.
And yet it also soars, thanks in no small part to James Orr (2.22) and Lisa Gerrard’s (Gladiator) beautiful score, which adds a luminous, ethereal counterpoint to the action of the drama, but also to Raftopolous’ understanding that he’s grappling with archetypal themes here: fathers and sons, freedom and responsibility, guilt and redemption, sex and death. That these play out in this inner urban microcosm makes them no less heady or universal, and the director demonstrates his understanding with a scattering of religious iconography throughout the film.
Which might spill over into pretentiousness if the proceedings weren’t anchored by fantastic understated turns from Hill and Perham, the latter making his screen debut here, along with a supporting cast that includes Underbelly‘s Kat Stewart and veteran Kaarin Fairfax. A screenwriter himself, Hill has carved out a niche (or perhaps he’s had the niche thrust upon him – he’s got a look) playing put upon, inarticulate working class guys who are trying their best to get ahead of their own considerable flaws, and with that in mind the role of Jimmy fits him like a court appearance suit. For Perham’s part, he imbues Alex with just the right amount of unconditional love for his old man – tempered with the growing suspicion that he may be a bit of a terminal stuff-up. In combination, their dynamic never feels less than absolutely authentic – a crucial element in what is almost a two man show.
Small scale, big-hearted, thematically ambitious and formally deft, West of Sunshine is a nigh-perfect slice of inner city Australian cinema that manages to dodge the dour, self-serious pitfalls that so often dog its genre mates, while at the same time remaining absolutely committed to its characters, themes, and intents. It is, make no mistake, a minor miracle.